Ilesa Duncan has a lot on her plate these days.
The Hyde Parker became artistic director of Lifeline Theatre in January 2019 and also directed the Rogers Park company's current show, “Middle Passage” (through April 5), which she and David Barr III adapted from Dr. Charles Johnson's eponymous novel.
In addition, she continues working with Pegasus Theatre Chicago as she has, in various positions, for 15 years. She's been fielding scripts for the 33-year-old Young Playwrights Festival, as well as developing the 2020-2021 season for Lifeline, doing research for a piece she's writing, and undertaking several other projects.
But this level of activity is nothing new for Duncan, who says she was bitten by the theater bug when she was six or seven years old. “I took a theater workshop while on a school holiday break in Palo Alto, California, and really liked it,” she recalls. “The arts were all around us at home, and I have siblings who are musicians and visual artists, but I have no talent for that.”
Born in Indianapolis, Duncan lived in the Midwest and San Francisco Bay area while growing up. She moved to Chicago for family reasons and attended Columbia College Chicago, from which she graduated in 1999 with a degree in film. “I was always a theater artist,” she says, adding that she kept doing live theater in high school and college.
By that time, she decided that she wanted to be a director, not an actor. “One of my mentors told me that I had the temperament of a director, but no one went to school for directing in those days,” she said. With a group of people, she started the now-defunct Chameleon theater company and began directing for Chicago Theatre Company at 67th Street and Eberhart Avenue.
Before landing the full-time position with Pegasus, Duncan says she had jobs mostly in the non-theater, non-profit sector, which is where she learned how to write grant proposals. She also was a freelance director all over Chicago and beyond.
Her first job at Pegasus was running the Young Playwrights Festival, though she eventually became artistic director when the founder retired. The peripatetic theater moved several times, ending up as the theater-in-residence at Chicago Dramatists in West Town, and Duncan became education director there, too. Eventually, the Pegasus and Chicago Dramatists programs merged, and the Young Playwrights Festival now provides year-long residencies in high schools.
Duncan says her involvement with Young Playwrights is what sparked her own interest in playwriting. “I'd written poetry and non-fiction for a long time, sometimes secretly, sometimes under a pseudonym, but when I read Johnson's 'Middle Passage,' it just leapt off the page at me as a play,” she remembered.
That was about 15 years ago, and after Duncan got in touch with Barr, they worked on the piece for a decade before shopping it around to theaters. “The process took a long time because we were both inundated with other projects,” she explained. “Initially, we each took half of the book, did a loose adaptation, then switched, so we'd work on it separately and then share.”
When they finished, they couldn't find a theater that could fit the show into the season, so they staged it at Pegasus in 2016 as “Rutherford's Travels.” Duncan says she'd been told that was the original title, and she liked it because the coming-of-age story focuses on the adventures of Rutherford Calhoun, a newly freed Illinois slave in 1830 New Orleans who stows away on an outbound rigger to escape his debts and an enforced marriage, only to find that it's a slave ship bound for Africa. “It's a combination of seafaring swashbuckler and indictment of slavery,” she said.
But the Pegasus space was too small to do what she really wanted, and Duncan was eager to revisit the play. So she pitched it to Lifeline, which specializes in original adaptations. She also reverted to the title of the book, “Middle Passage,” because that's what people recognize, and it's also the theater's policy to use the books' titles.
Since Barr wasn't available, Duncan teamed up with Shawn Wallace, especially to provide original music to go with Calhoun's journey. She also revised the script in several ways, among them exploring in more detail the relationship between Rutherford and Isadora, the woman responsible for him fleeing New Orleans. At Lifeline, she has space for expanded staging, including using projections.
“There's a lot here that people don't know, for example, that the ship was illegal because the slave trade had been abolished by 1830,” she says. “I wanted to create a show that could play large regional theaters all over the country—and I would love to go to Broadway.” She also hopes to see the story made into a film, something she says Johnson has wanted for years but was sidelined by the movie “Amistad.”
Although much of Duncan's work has been on North Side lately, she's lived on the South Side at least half the time she's been in Chicago. She moved to Hyde Park about four years ago from The Gap section of Bronzville, where she'd been for more than a dozen years. “I always wanted to live in Hyde Park because I have friends in the neighborhood,” she says, “and I finally found an affordable place on Hyde Park Boulevard.”
Duncan says she loves the feel of the community – “kind of college town with a long history.” It's quiet but there is lots to do, and you can go to a favorite bar and find lots of locals. The people are friendly, and it has all the things she likes about the city in general, including being close to the lake. “It feels unique among city neighborhoods, and I've always liked unique,” she says, ticking off a few of her favorite places: Court Theatre (though she hasn't directed there), Ja' Grill, the Medici, the Hyde Park Jazz Festival, and sitting on Promontory Point.
Chief among Duncan's dislikes is how congested Hyde Park traffic gets during big events, though she hastens to say that's not enough to make her move, despite her long daily commute to Lifeline.
What she loves most about working in the theater? Collaboration. “It's a team, People have specialties but they contribute to everything,” she explains. “Working with a group of people to realize a vision is fascinating and rich for me. I've spent my career telling stories of the black experience because I'm black, but I'm interested in intersecting cultures. Theater can help us tell difficult stories about race, gender, etc., and I want to engage artists, the audience, and the larger community in how to talk about these things.”